In all businesses, health and safety continue to be a vital priority. The key reason is, people!
Undisputedly, employees are the most valuable asset of any workplace. When people feel safe and secure, it is proven that they focus better and deliver at their best. Many workplace and HR surveys document that feeling safe and secure leads to better work performance and lowers the risk of incidents, injuries and illnesses.
In addition to looking after the individual employee, workplace health and safety positively impacts the business’ bottom line. It lowers costs, boosts retention and attracts top talent, as well as enhancing the reputation of a company as a responsible and caring employer.
“A lot of organizations are shifting their perspective on seeing workplace health and safety as a cost centre to one that has a lot of indirect returns,” notes Jason Dent, founder and principal consultant at JADA Solutions, a consultancy dedicated to integrity and excellence in Total Worker Health® consulting. “Employees are looking to work for organizations that are showing interest in them and their personal growth and health. This includes looking for organizations with strong health safety environmental (HSE) consulting programs that are integrated with the employees, their tasks and how the work flows.”
He adds that an investment in understanding workflow and properly integrating safety within operations leads to improved employee mental health and productivity.
“It’s definitely a win-win, because it leads to increased retention and attraction of long-term employees.”
In the workplace, health and safety are also carefully defined and regulated as a workplace priority, with specific guidelines and strict requirements for compliance. In the past few years, Alberta has increased health and safety inspections by more than a third and continues to target high-risk industries. Repeat offenders are handed penalties or prosecuted.
Safety inspectors have the latitude to hand out tickets on the spot, with fines ranging from $100 to $500 for common violations such as failing to wear fall prevention gear or not keeping a worksite free from slip hazards. The province continues to ramp up focused attention on workplace health and safety and Alberta OHS legislation and changes were implemented in March.
Some health and safety experts caution that compliance depends on the workplace’s culture and suggest that, ultimately, it is difficult to evaluate levels of compliance because Alberta has a complaint-based and incident-based system – an internal responsibility system in which both employers and workers have obligations on worker safety.
“Yes, organizations are embracing the safety laws and guidelines,” explains Alex Mercer, JADA’s operations manager. “Most of the organizations we work with are, in some areas, even going above and beyond government expectations.
“But the level of compliance depends on the size of the organization. Smaller organizations tend to be at the level of traditional safety or compliance-based safety programs. Over the last few years, we are seeing a shift away from reactive programs and we are moving more towards a proactive system, engaging employees or developing leading KPIs and acting on issues or concerns before a third party identifies it.”
Mercer mentions that many organizations are investing in areas of worker exposure and controls as part of worker engagement and retention.
Nimmi Dua, team lead of UAlberta’s Online and Continuing Education, details the broad focus of the University’s in-demand Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) program.
“One of the more recent issues influencing workplace health and safety has been a greater and deeper focus on psychological health and safety. Although Canada has been a world leader in this regard, with a voluntary CSA standard on psychological health and safety in the workplace, the pandemic was instrumental in bringing many issues to light and boosted understanding about the importance of workers’ mental health and wellness.”
She explains that mental health has become one of the top three concerns of Canadian employers.
“Employers have come to recognize the importance of managing psychological health and safety in relation to business success. Not addressing psychological health and safety in the workplace is a significant cost to the Canadian economy.”
Recent surveys show that when it comes to workplace health and safety, mental health problems and mental illnesses are a leading cause of disability, absence and presenteeism and a significant economic burden for Canadian businesses (estimated at $51 billion per year; some $20 billion from direct workplace losses).
The stats also show that mental health problems and mental illnesses account for approximately 30 per cent of short-term and long-term disability claims and are one of the top causes of disability claims from over 80 per cent of Canadian employers.
Continuing Education at UAlberta excels at helping employers and individuals gain the knowledge and skills needed to build and enhance careers. The OHS program offers workplace wellness leadership, an online three-course series including the psychological health and safety course, which covers many aspects of a work environment that influence employee mental health and wellness.
Whether it is the stereotypical physical risks and injuries or the stealth and more subtle and ‘invisible’ mental health workplace issues, and despite increased awareness about the realities and the need for effective workplace health and safety, consultants and other experts point out some challenges.
“The biggest issue is the breadth and depth of safety and how it interacts within an organization. There are so many different aspects to safety and how they can overlap with many different departments within an organization,” Dent says. “HR, management, production, etc. being knowledgeable in all aspects is almost impossible.”
“Even finding an Occupation Health and Safety professional with complete knowledge or the relationships with other professionals that can help can be quite difficult,” Mercer adds. “Smaller and mid-size organizations may not have access to professionals or groups that can advise them on health and safety as they do with business or financial matters.
“Other challenges are budget and staffing. Organizations are struggling to find good staff in a wide variety of roles. Health and safety positions are no different.”
Of course, size matters. Budgets and staffing resources are key factors for businesses to implement degrees of workplace health and safety programs.
Dua points out that small and large employers alike are striving to better understand and invest in employee wellness.
“Training employees to be more proactive, especially in enhancing their mental health and wellness, is an approach many employers are embracing to enhance employee wellness as well as to reduce business costs such as absenteeism, retention and productivity.”
While the case for focused and effective workplace health and safety is now an essential component of Edmonton business – and the need is urgent – there is an encouraging trend of positivity in the workplace.
“Edmonton organizations are embracing safety laws and guidelines. It is good, but there always could be better, compliance,” Dent says. “However, most of the Edmonton area organizations we work with are going above and beyond expectations.”